Truant or home-schooled?

After the Department of Education calls home schooling illegal, the issue haunts the superintendent’s race and the Legislature

Illustration By Conrad Garcia

Delaine Eastin’s long political career, which culminated in her eight-year reign as state superintendent of public instruction, is slipping into its final days, but she’s not going gently into that good night.

In what some critics characterize as “one last hurrah,” Eastin has riled up home-schooling supporters and critics by sending off a letter to both the state’s senators and Assembly members asking for clarification on the Education Code’s language regarding home schooling.

“Although, at one time, California recognized home schooling as an authorized means of complying with school attendance requirements,” Eastin’s letter read, “the option of education in the home has not been included in our statutes since 1903.”

The idea that home schooling suddenly could be characterized as illegal in California has frightened parents and has led to divisions between political and educational leaders. It also has threatened to affect the upcoming race for Eastin’s position. Forced out by term limits, Eastin will leave her post this November either to Senator Jack O’Connell (D-San Luis Obispo), who won a plurality in the March primary, or to his opponent for the non-partisan post, Republican Katherine H. Smith.

In her eight years in office, Eastin has overseen a fight between home-schoolers who want to practice under the same loose regulations that govern private schools, and truancy experts who are using increasingly harsh means, including jail time for parents, to keep kids in school.

Eastin’s letter to legislators, which included sections of the Education Code meant to prove that home schools are distinctly different from private schools, finally has made clear her department’s position on the issue.

Though the letter also claimed that Eastin and her staff at the Department of Education had been falsely “characterized in some circles as being engaged in a campaign to harass home-schoolers and to root out home schooling in California,” a previous memo from her office is what originally set off the alarms in the home-schooling community.

On July 16, a memo from Deputy Superintendent Joanne Mendoza to various school administrators outlined the new online filing process for private schools, which have to submit R-4 affidavits to the state. The R-4 simply establishes contact information and provides a few details on the private school’s location and size, including the number of students and educators. Home-schoolers traditionally have filed the same R-4 in order to be legally identified as private schools. This has been the sticking point between home-schoolers and administrators.

Home-schoolers say that by filing the R-4 and keeping attendance, they are meeting the obligations of a private school. Education officials say that filing the form does nothing to prove home schools’ legitimacy and that if they were really private schools, they’d compete in the marketplace for students, which might guarantee some measure of quality.

With this conflict in mind, Mendoza included the following paragraph in her memo: “In California, ‘home schooling’—a situation where non-credentialed parents teach their own children, exclusively, at home, whether using a correspondence course or other types of courses—is not an authorized exemption from mandatory public-school attendance. Furthermore, a parent’s filing of the affidavit required of a private school does not transform that parent into a private school. Therefore, those parents who home-school their children are operating outside the law, and there is no reason for them to file an affidavit.”

Delaine Eastin

Photo by Larry Dalton

Home-schooling advocates viewed this memo as a direct attack on home-schoolers. Eastin’s follow-up letter to the Legislature became the second shot in this battle.

Characterizing public schools as violent environments in which students are exposed to foul language, drugs and the wrong messages about ethics and morality, some parents believe that a home-based education is their best option. By leaving their jobs and other responsibilities to take over their children’s education, these parents feel, they’re providing the most dedicated parenting as well as a measure of fiscal relief to the state.

Annette Hall, the legislative monitoring chair for the California Homeschool Network—although she recently moved to Michigan because of that state’s strong support for home schooling—said that the public-school system is overburdened. Even though California spends 40 percent of its general fund on K-12 education, Hall said she believes most of the money goes to high-level administration and not into the classrooms. This, she said, has led to low test scores and an overall poor quality of instruction.

Home-schooling families not associated with charter schools pay for their children’s education without taxpayer funds, Hall said. By doing so, she said, the families free up space and other resources in crowded classrooms. She thinks the Department of Education should embrace home schooling as a fiscally responsible option.

Critics of the practice say home schooling suffers from a lack of oversight. An R-4 affidavit does not prove that a child is being rigorously educated or that the home-schooling parent is qualified to be the child’s sole educator. There’s no way to know whether parents are being responsible teachers or are simply allowing their children to avoid compulsory education.

Committed home-schoolers say that such oversight is unnecessary because home-schoolers traditionally are very attentive teachers. And, throughout the years, home-schoolers have developed a variety of resources and networks to ensure their children receive a well-rounded education. Parents even can join charter schools that provide them with a curriculum. Ultimately, advocates say, parents must be able to decide what kinds of information their children are exposed to.

“We’re not asking for permission,” Hall said. “We have that right.”

Though the Department of Education’s letters and memos have gotten the attention of the home-schooling community, they have not yet conjured up the strong response from the Legislature for which Eastin asked. No new home-schooling legislation was submitted before the end of the 2002 session, but it’s likely, some legislators say, that the issue will be addressed in the next session.

Hall sees this as a potential threat.

“The Democrats are in charge,” she said, fearing that the Legislature would look at the fuzzier sections of the Education Code and side with administrators like Eastin. As the November elections approach, it has become clear that the outcome of the race for state superintendent of public instruction could change the Department of Education’s policy radically.

O’Connell, a Democrat, will face long-shot Smith, a Republican who edged out her more centrist opponent, termed-out Assemblywoman Lynne Leach (R-Walnut Creek), in the primary.

Jack O’Connell

Courtesy Of Jack O'Connell for State Superintendent

Smith’s Web site touts her back-to-basics approach to education and her programs in support of improved citizenship: dress codes for teachers, school uniforms for students, and starting each day with a moment of silence that could be filled with quiet prayer. The flap over home schooling gave Smith an opportunity to distinguish herself further from O’Connell and the powerful lobbyists and unions that support him.

Claiming that she’s “not a career politician trying to find a way to stay on the public payroll,” Smith joined with Senator Dick Ackerman (R-Tustin) in releasing the next attack in the ongoing war of words. She and Ackerman sent a letter to Eastin in which they requested she retract her “office’s recent remarks declaring home-schooled children as truant from public-school attendance.”

“I think Delaine is way off base,” Ackerman said, referring to Eastin’s letter to the legislators. Rapidly hitting one rhetorical point after another, Ackerman said home schooling has been successful for many years and only became an issue during Eastin’s reign. The founding fathers taught their own kids, Ackerman said, implying that if Ben Franklin could do it, so could anyone else. Ackerman also suggested that waiting until she was about to leave office to raise the issue with the Legislature made him question Eastin’ credibility.

Smith was more succinct. “It’s about one word,” she said, “freedom.”

The people she knows who home-school their children, Smith said, “are very, very capable. … The people who home-school are extremely devoted parents. Hats off. That’s quite a commitment.”

Smith agreed that truancy was a problem but said the state should use its resources to go after real truants, the students whose parents are not intimately involved in their education.

“You’ve got to control your children,” Smith said. “We’ve become so lackadaisical in our responsibilities.”

In contrast to Smith’s strong advocacy for home schooling, front-runner O’Connell is not as forthcoming.

A former teacher, he has been an education advocate in the state Senate for the last eight years and in the Assembly before that. O’Connell is seen as an insider who has earned endorsements from a large variety of organizations, newspapers and unions, including the Association of California School Administrators, the California School Employees Association and the powerful California Teachers Association. But he didn’t get so popular by being an advocate for home-schoolers.

O’Connell authored Senate Bill 740, which cut funding to charter schools, some of which were devoted to home schooling. The bill also encouraged more interaction between independent-study charter schools and public-school campuses that could share resources and fold charter-school students into their extracurricular activities.

O’Connell, who would not give a direct answer to whether home schooling should be considered legal in California, did say that he encouraged the home-schooling community to work with the school districts to ensure that all students are being held to the same standards. Students need to know what’s expected of them intellectually and socially, he said.

Regardless of who wins the election in November, it’s clear that Eastin has dropped the issue in the laps of her successor and legislators, who likely will consider the pros and cons of independent education in the next session.

Though the superintendent of public instruction is concerned primarily with what happens in public schools, truancy has become a haunting issue that contributes to low graduation rates and low test scores. While education officials examine the larger issues related to truancy, eventually they’ll have to determine whether home schooling contributes to low performance or is its solution.